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COVID-19: The global food supply chain is holding up, for now

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The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is so far having little impact on the global food supply chain, but that could change for the worse – and soon – if anxiety-driven panic by major food importers takes hold, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Friday.

In a new report, “COVID-19: Potential impact on the world’s poorest people: A WFP analysis of the economic and food security implications of the pandemic”, the UN agency said that global markets for basic cereals are well-supplied and prices generally low.

However, it said, given the highly globalized nature of food production and supply, commodities need to move from the world’s ‘breadbaskets’ to where they are consumed – and COVID-19-related containment measures are starting to make this more challenging.

“Disruptions are so far minimal; food supply is adequate, and markets are relatively stable,” said WFP Senior Spokesperson, Elizabeth Byrs, noting that global cereal stocks are at comfortable levels and the outlook for wheat and other staple crops is positive for the rest of this year.

“But we may soon expect to see disruptions in food supply chains”, she said, explaining that if big importers lose confidence in the reliable flow of basic food commodities, panic buying could ensue, driving prices up.

‘Behavioural change’ could rock markets

Elaborating, a seasoned grain market analyst at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), quoted anonymously in the report, said the problem is not supply, but “a behavioral change over food security”.

“What if bulk buyers think they can’t get wheat or rice shipments in May or June?  That is what could lead to a global food supply crisis,” the analyst said.

For low-income countries, the consequences could be devastating, with long-term repercussions, with coping strategies coming at the expense of such essential services as health and education.

It recalled that when a food price crisis struck in 2008, the world’s poorest households – which typically spend the largest share of income on food – suffered disproportionately.

Using the economic pillar of the Proteus food security index – and taking into account dependency on primary commodities such as fuel, ores and metals for export earnings – the report said that countries in Africa and the Middle East are most vulnerable.

Africa most vulnerable

Africa accounts for the majority of the almost 212 million people in the world who are chronically food insecure and the 95 million who live amidst acute food insecurity, the report noted.

Ms. Byrs added that labour shortages could disrupt the production and processing of labour-intensive crops in particularly, especially in vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other potential sources of disruption include blockages along transport routes – a particular concern for fresh produce – and quarantine measures that could impede farmers’ access to markets, he explained.

Going forward, the WFP report said that it is essential to monitor food prices and markets, and to transparently disseminate information – thus helping to strengthen government policies while also averting public panic, and social unrest.

It added that in places where food insecurity is caused by restricted access, rather than lack of availability, cash-based transfers – which can often be made through contactless solutions – should be considered as a standard response.

“Planning in-kind food assistance is essential”, the report continued, noting that supply chain disruptions are likely to affect higher-value items first.  Such items involve more tiers of suppliers, human interaction and dependency on few suppliers – putting specialized nutritious food more at risk than staples.

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Environment

Duck conservation takes flight in Jamaica

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On January 20, 2021, the day of the inauguration of American president Joe Biden, two ducks named “Joe” and “Kamala” took flight from a remote wetland near Negril, Jamaica. And, like their namesakes, the fowl will be the focus of international attention.

That’s because Joe and Kamala are West Indian whistling ducks, the rarest duck species in the Americas, with fewer than 20,000 remaining, found only in the northern Caribbean. Conservationists released the pair, which were outfitted with GPS trackers, into the wild on 20 January, kicking off a study to learn more about their species and, researchers hope, ensure their survival.

BirdsCaribbean is a partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The whistling duck study is supported by UNEP’s Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in Caribbean Small Island Developing States (IWEco) project.

With one million species are at risk of extinction, biodiversity is a key priority of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  Ecosystems are fundamental to human health and prosperity, availing food and water, regulating temperature, stimulating economic growth, putting roofs over heads and clothing on backs. As ecosystems degrade, so do human lives.

As the world faces the stark reality that none of the Aichi targets were met and prepares for a new, ambitious post-2020 framework, the issue is more urgent than ever.  In fact, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are ranked among the top five threats to humanity in the coming decade.

Whistling ducks’ long-term survival has been threatened by the destruction of their wetland habitats, as well as climate change, pollution, poaching and predators. Little is known about the large waterbird that is between the size of a large duck and a goose, has a long neck, and is mostly brown in colour, but may have black-and-white patches on its neck and flanks. The duck’s characteristic features is its distinctive whistling call.

“We are thrilled with the launch of this exciting project,” said Lisa Sorenson, the Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean. “I expect it will lead to major improvements in our knowledge of the ducks’ movements and habitat use.”

The trackers attached to Joe and Kamala  are expected to plot their positions every hour to within a few metres and will help the scientists to know about the species, their migration patterns, nesting sites, feeding zones and roosting locales. Researchers are aiming to use the information gathered through the initiative to plan for the species’ recovery.

Led by UNEP with the backing of the Global Environment Facility, IWEco is helping 10 Caribbean countries manage their water and land resources while safeguarding biodiversity. A key part of the project has been the protection and monitoring of endemic species, like West Indian whistling ducks.

As one of the three founding Global Environment Facility partners, UNEP has been working on conservation projects supported by the facility for almost 30 years.

“Together, UNEP and the Global Environment Facility have successfully worked to address global transboundary issues since 1992, and we look forward to further strengthening and implementing actions for nature,” said Sinikinesh Beyene Jimma head of UNEP’s GEF International Waters Unit.

And while biodiversity targets have not been met, evidence indicates that efforts have produced results. Where action was taken, habitat loss was controlled and decades of degradation were reversed.

UN Environment

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Finance

Estonia provides good support to jobseekers, but does not reach everybody

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The Estonian labour market has outperformed most EU countries after the global financial crisis. The employment rate of people in working age stood at 73% in the third quarter of 2020, up from 61.3% in 2010 and above the OECD average of 66.7%. Estonia provides comprehensive and targeted support to jobseekers, workers and employers. The Public Employment Service provides effective policies addressing the individual needs of the clients and cooperates pro-actively with a wide range of stakeholders. However, many people still lack stable jobs and incomes and are not in touch with the Public Employment Service to get the support they need, according to a new OECD report.

Connecting people with jobs: Improving the provision of active labour market policies in Estonia says that despite good labour market outcomes, about one quarter (26%) of the working age population could achieve better labour market outcomes through targeted support. Many of them face challenges related to their skills (68%) and family-related challenges (64%), such as care obligations. In many cases, they face several obstacles simultaneously and require an integrated approach.

Estonia’s active labour market policies (ALMPs) are responsive to labour market needs. However, ALMPs reach only 39% of people who are weakly attached to the labour market, and only 33% of people who are out of employment for more than one year.

“Reinforcing outreach to vulnerable groups far from the labour market is crucial to ensure that more people in Estonia get the support they need,” said Stefano Scarpetta, OECD Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs.

Improved cooperation between the Public Employment Service and other relevant institutions providing social, health and education services would help reduce gaps in support to vulnerable groups. Notably, municipalities should be the “first respondents”, supporting vulnerable groups with social welfare services, and cooperating with other institutions when needed. 

Further improvements in the provision of ALMPs could be supported by a leaner regulatory framework. The current legal regulations support flexible and effective policy responses but are complex, which leads to administrative inefficiencies. A leaner regulatory framework would enable Estonia to support flexibility in policy design while maintaining the capacity to respond to labour market changes.

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Energy News

New EU energy labels applicable from 1 March 2021

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To help EU consumers cut their energy bills and carbon footprint, a brand new version of the widely-recognised EU energy label will be applicable in all shops and online retailers from Monday, 1 March 2021. The new labels will initially apply to four product categories – fridges and freezers, dishwashers, washing machines, and television sets (and other external monitors). New labels for light bulbs and lamps with fixed light sources will follow on 1 September, and other products will follow in the coming years.

With more and more products achieving ratings as A+, A++ or A+++ according to the current scale, the most important change is to return to a simpler A-G scale. This scale is stricter and designed so that very few products are initially able to achieve the “A” rating, leaving space for more efficient products to be included in the future. The most energy efficient products currently on the market will typically now be labelled as “B”, “C” or “D”. A number of new elements will be included on the labels, including a QR link to an EU-wide database, which will allow consumers to find more details about the product. A number of ecodesign rules will also come into force from 1 March – notably on reparability and the need for manufacturers to keep spare parts available for a number of years after products are no longer on the market.

Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, said: “The original energy label has been very successful, saving an average household in Europe several hundred euros per year and motivating companies to invest into research and development. Until the end of February, over 90% of products were labelled either A+, A++ or A+++. The new system will be clearer for consumers and ensure that businesses continue to innovate and offer even more efficient products. This also helps us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.” 

As well as rescaling the energy efficiency class of the product concerned, the layout of the new label is different, with clearer and more modern icons. Like the previous labels, the rescaled labels show more than just the energy efficiency class. For a washing machine, for example, they show at a glance the number of water liters per cycle, the duration of a cycle, and the energy consumption, as measured for a standardised programme.

A further significant change is the introduction of a QR code on the top right of the new labels. By scanning the QR-code, consumers can find additional information about the product model, such as data relating to the dimensions, specific features or test results depending on the appliance. All appliances on the EU market have to be registered in a new EU-wide database – European Product Registry for Energy Labels (EPREL). This will further facilitate the comparison of similar products in the future.

In addition to the new energy labelling rules, there are corresponding new regulations on ecodesign that take effect on 1 March 2021. These relate notably to the updated minimum efficiency requirements and reinforce consumer rights to repair products and support the circular economy. Manufacturers or importers will now be obliged to make a range of essential parts (motors and motor brushes, pumps, shock absorbers and springs, washing drums, etc.) available to professional repairers for at least 7-10 years after the last unit of a model has been placed on the EU market. For end-users, too (i.e. consumers who are not professional repairers, but like to repair things themselves), manufacturers must make certain spare parts available for several years after a product is taken off the market –  products such as doors or hinges and seals, which are suitable for DIY action. The maximum delivery time for all these pieces is 15 working days after ordering.

Background

The EU energy label is a widely recognised feature on household products, like lightbulbs, television sets or washing machines, and has helped consumers make informed choices for more than 25 years. In an EU-wide (Eurobarometer) survey in 2019, 93% of consumers confirmed that they recognised the label and 79% confirmed that it had influenced their decision on what product to buy. Together with harmonised minimum performance requirements (known as ecodesign), EU energy labelling rules are estimated to cut consumer expenditure by tens of billions of euros every year, whilst generating multiple other benefits for the environment and for manufacturers and retailers.

The new categories for the rescaled label were agreed after a rigorous and fully transparent consultation process, with the close involvement of stakeholders and Member States at all stages, scrutiny by the Council and the European Parliament and with sufficient involvement of and notice provided to manufacturers. As required by the framework regulation, other product groups will be “rescaled” in the coming years – including tumble dryers, local space heaters, air conditioners, cooking appliances, ventilation units, professional refrigeration cabinets, space and water heaters, and solid fuel boilers.

The switch to the rescaled labels coincides with the entry into force of two horizontal (“omnibus”) regulations recently adopted to correct or clarify a range of issues identified in the concerned energy labelling and ecodesign regulations as originally adopted in 2019.

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